Between the volatility in the polls and the ever changing campaign themes (at least from the Obama camp), it is sometimes easy to get lost in the weeds. Mark Halperin takes a step back and identifies the fundamentals that should continue to drive this race through election day (or at least the next debate):
One, Romney’s campaign trail performance is without a doubt better than it was before, but it is also getting more attention and being given gentler reviews by voters and the Gang of 500. As long as the Republican is on a roll, even the Old Romney will be seen through new, more forgiving eyes.
This is both the bandwagon effect (everyone likes a winner) plus a tacit admission the media were covering Romney unfairly prior to his debate performance. The media will want access to a Romney Administration so they need to curry favor and cover for their all-out advocacy over the prior months.
Two, the message discipline reversal continues. Romney is running on a theme he can sustain through Election Day (“we can’t afford four more years of Obama”), while Chicago has switched from “Romney is an extremist” to “Romney is a liar who hates Big Bird.” The Obama campaign has some sorting out to do on this, especially in the eyes of the Gang, and, perhaps, with voters.
This is a big deal. The Obama campaign has no second term agenda that even their staunchest advocates in the media reluctantly concede. Ever since the disastrous first debate performance their campaign and messaging has been floundering while the Romney campaign has sprouted wings. Even today’s juxtaposed Sesame Street ads speak to a substance-less Obama message versus a wonderful jiujitsu reversal to substantive issues like Syria and jobs in the Sesame Street/RNC graphic.
Third, momentum and confidence matter a lot in politics. Until at least the next debate on October 16, Romney and his forces are likely to have more of both, barring some huge intervening event.
This is a cautionary warning to the Romney campaign that folds into the prior point of message discipline. The Romney campaign in the primaries and even during the general election had an uncanny ability to steal its own thunder when events and momentum were on its side. Coming out of the debate the campaign has achieved the opposite by augmenting their advantages most notably with Romney opening up about the incredible and poignant service he has done in his community for many years with no fanfare. Absent Europe collapsing (still possible) or another terrorist attack the current framing and construct of the campaign should last until the next Presidential debate — sorry Paul, the VP debate doesn’t matter, just ask President Dukakis.
Fourth, while the horserace poll numbers are eye-catching, watch to see if there is Romney improvement on “cares about people like me” questions and on “has better ideas on the economy and jobs.” Those are among the most critical areas.
There’s more to the empathy issue than meets the eye. While economy and jobs are the overriding principles of this election, we’re down a single percent of Undecided/persuadable voters. And when they are in the voting booth they need to “feel” comfortable with Mitt Romney. He’ll never come close to passing President Obama in this category ahead of the election but it would hugely valuable if this softer-side metric continued to rise as the public sees the different side of Romney evidenced by the personal stories he shares.
Fifth, and most important, the President still has an advantage in the Electoral College, both in the individual battlegrounds and in terms of more paths to 270. Whatever progress Romney has made in the wake of Denver, he hasn’t eliminated the Obama edge there, and, obviously, nothing else really matters.
This is the reality of incumbency and what ever more looks like a the 50/50 electorate we had in 2000 and 2004. Obama’s support may be soft underneath in any number of states, but he does have a base support that gets him all the way to 47% no matter how you slice the electorate. It only takes a small amount more to put him over the top.